"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 26, 2020

“Watch Your Edges”–The Joyful Risk-Taking Life Of A Liberated Woman

“Watch your edges”, warned Martha Lassiter; and little Bonnie Lassiter moved away from the edge of the chair, climbed down, too small to reach the sink, unable to reach the bubbly water and soapy dishes, looking up at it with tears in her eyes, wondering again why her mother was no fun at all.

“Watch your edges” became a useful catch-all warning in the Lassiter house.  Be careful walking down stairs, hold on to the bannister, don’t get too close to the railing, lie in the middle of the bed, never touch a knife don’t hit your head on the counter.  There were dangerous edges everywhere, Bonnie learned.  There were edges outside too, her mother warned. Stay in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t get too close to the curb, don’t go down the slide, run on the path.  Soon the little girl saw nothing but edges and the world a frightening place. Her classroom was not a friendly but treacherous.  Friends’ houses were dangerous places where there were new edges she had never seen before.

Image result for images of sharp edges

By the time she was five, she had to be coached to cross the threshold, to lose her fear of the sharp, tonsured edges of the lawn, and the rattling, creaky edges of the mailbox.  By the time she was six, she was a psychotic wreck.

The story would be very depressing and sad if Bonnie had not emerged from this horrible miasma of scary edges, but she did.  As happens to some precociously smart girls, they figure things out sooner than everyone else.  If every step was perilous, she thought, then all steps were perilous; and if all steps were perilous than none were.  At worst a tautology, at best a recalling of Epimenides’ “All Cretans are liars”.  That plus a realization that her mother was rarely right about anything, and just plain advisory overload gave her an ‘Aha!’moment.  The world of edges was only a dark fairy tale - Little Red Riding Hood about to be eaten by the Big Bad Wolf.  Hansel and Gretel fattened up to be Sunday’s roast.  Edges grew up like huge trees, their limbs hanging over a dark, narrow path in the woods; or ghoulish sharp things coming at her in the night. 

Epimenides of Crete

Many children come to their senses sooner or later and realize that as much as they might love their parents, it didn’t do to pay attention to everything they said.  Now that she thought about it, her mother was indifferent to edges.  She always put her martini glass too close to the edge of the counter, knocked it over, and picked up the shards with her fingers; or after three martinis closed her fingers between the edge of the door and the edge of the closet.  How could she had been so stupid to listen to her?

Many of those same children who learn to disregard the obsessions of their parents, make a sharp about face.  Not only did Bonnie pay no attention to edges, she sought them.  Now that she understood that edges were her mother’s lame metaphor for risk; that risk was everywhere and unavoidable; and that edges were there to be tried, she became a bad girl. As a teenager, she was a holy terror - rebellious, dismissive, arrogant, and willful.  Those classmates who too had been hectored and badgered by obsessive mothers were her groupies.  They could never come close to her petulance, misbehavior, and sexual liberty but knew she was on to something.  Bonnie was the girl who, according to their mothers, was to be avoided at all costs.

She was too smart and too savvy to get dismissed from the prestigious schools she went to.  School administrators admitted during student performance reviews that they had no idea what to do with Bonnie Lassiter.  Her grades somehow put her near the top of her class, and she always stopped just short of overt disrespect of her betters.  They simply would have to put up with her, for they had no grounds for dismissing what they concluded was a very bad seed.

The Law of Unintended Consequences works every time, and because of her mother’s edges – the obsessive, neutering, avoidance of all risk – she at first went overboard and did whatever; but soon became more selective.  There was no point in being stupid; but then again there was no point sitting at home.

Peter Beaumont is a columnist for the Guardian and also an ardent mountain-climber.  He recounts the indescribable thrill of taking life-threatening risks.

So why do it? Al Alvarez, the poet, critic and essayist – a keen climber in his younger days – once framed it: "To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life."

Image result for images high risk mountain climbing

Beaumont goes on to say that we don’t really have a choice:

Studies have indicated that risk taking is hardwired into our brains, perhaps once providing evolutionary advantages. They also suggest that for a significant minority – one in five – risk is intimately linked to arousal and pleasure-seeking mechanisms.

Moreover risk-taking can be liberating, and meaningful:

So while you can find risk-minimizing disciplines in climbing, the acceptance and management of a degree of risk is integral to mountaineering. It is what makes the best mountain days so memorable, providing recollections that can be etched for years into the memory, the pleasure of the mountains coming after all the hard work is over.

For some, in a world in which we spend so much of our time navigating expectations and judgments and convention, the indifference of the mountains to our passage over them has the power to remind us of the insignificance of our existence. Paradoxically they also supply a reminder of how intensely that life can be experienced.

Risk is what makes life bearable.  Without it there would be nothing but lunch pails, cubicles, and stale sex. Extreme risk-takers are part of an exclusive club.  No one takes the same risks, but all share in the adventure of leaving ordinariness behind.

The Devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov tells Ivan that without him – a vaudevillian, mischievous provocateur – life would be intolerably boring.  Goodness has his limits, he tells Ivan.  No one wants a life of nothing but churches, mass, and the sacraments.  Taking risks – deliberately avoiding the ordinary and the predictable – breaks up the necessary and unavoidable routine of life.  Without taking chances, shaking up the moral order, life would be a post office. 

Image result for images ivan's devil karamazov

There is a third, perhaps most common and understandable aspect of risk – not seeking it, but never avoiding it.  The current COVID pandemic provides a laboratory for reaction to risk.  There are those who scrub surfaces until their fingers are raw and bleeding, whose homes smell like disinfectant, who wear masks in the open, free air, and are so fearful of contamination that they seal themselves off from family and friends.  They are afraid of dying.  They cannot see the pandemic as simply their generation’s universal risk – dying on the battlefield, raped and slaughtered by barbaric invaders, choked and bleeding from the plague, decapitated by Robespierre’s zealots.  Death is inevitable, a necessary triage, making room, giving way.  

There are others who know that death is inevitable but that dying in an ICU attached to ventilators is definitely far worse than a heroic death at Borodino or Waterloo.  They take care to avoid the most obvious and certain risks, are never cavalier, macho, or arrogant, but are not timed Nellies afraid of their own shadows.

Bonnie Lassiter had a bit of all three.  As a bad girl she was cast as irresponsible, undisciplined, and careless; but her risks were calculated.  There was indeed room in a world full of edges for reasoned risk. 

As an adult she chose her profession not for the risks it posed but despite them.  Virulent disease, violent accidents, corrupt and venal governments and the civil unrest, wars, and criminal assault were common where she worked.  The risk of any of them, if reasonable precautions were taken, were manageable; but there was something else.  Africa was a world filled with edges – real edges – and living among them, aware of them, never fearful of them, but appreciative of them made it all worthwhile. 

Josef Conrad knew this best.  Kurtz, the main character in his Heart of Darkness, willingly and deliberately enters a primitive, savage, and dark world.  He expects one thing – power, superiority, and wealth – but gets another.  “The horror…the horror”, he says before dying.  The world and everything in it is violent, amoral, and savage.

Image result for images conrad heart of darkness

Her response to COVID was conditioned by her life in Africa where nothing could be more risk-saturated and dangerous.  For Rene du Chaillu, Mungo Park, Sir Richard Burton, and the British Geographical Society’s other great explorers, risk was part of the adventure, the sine qua non of their reward, praise, and merit.  COVID by comparison had risk but no rewards – a completely different challenge.  It was an environment the only reward of which was some measure of spiritual or philosophical equanimity; or at best an assessment of individual courage.

Americans were told that there was no such challenge.  It was wrong, foolish, and irresponsible to macho up, wear no masks, and intermingle.  Those politicians who badgered, hectored, and threatened their citizens were right in one respect – COVID was definitely not worth dying for; but they underestimated another kind of courage.  An acceptance of risk and possible death with equanimity.  Such centering and self-awareness was lost in the hysteria – but not on Bonnie Lassiter.

Bonnie cheated on her husband, took Ecstasy with her Adams Morgan lover, refused to die ‘an emotional virgin’, and although she doubted some Lawrentian sexual epiphany, was not shy about looking for it.  She was a good mother, more or less; a good although often indifferent wife; a good worker who took liberties, and never looked back.

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